It is 1974, and women’s liberation has begun to shake the Western world. But one man has decided to take his stand against feminism: Frank Sinatra. And when he tells the crowd at an Australian concert just what is on his mind, the consequences for his tour of the country are stunning.
Sinatra’s career was not going all that well at the time, and the singer had only just back on the road after retiring. The crooner needed his tour to go well to help revitalize his career; but so far, his visit to Australia had been marred by clashes with the press.
On July 9, 1974, Ol’ Blue Eyes came to Melbourne, and there, he was set for a concert at the city’s Festival Hall – his first in Australia for nearly 20 years. Altogether, he planned to perform five times in the country, but after his first appearance, things were about to go seriously off course.
But before we learn exactly what happened to Sinatra in Australia, let’s learn more about the man himself. Though he had been a professional singer since his teens, Sinatra didn’t find any great success early in his career. Eventually though, hooking up with Tommy Dorsey gained him the top ten hit he craved. The singer then went solo and began his meteoric rise to fame. He soon became the favorite singer for “bobby soxers” – teen girls who represented a massive expansion of the pop music market.
People couldn’t get enough of Ol’ Blue Eyes; in 1946, for example, he was performing up to four dozen times each week and raking in as much as $93,000. His records also went like hot cakes and were selling in the millions. But the ups came with downs, as his career ran off the rails at the turn of the 1950s. This left him at a low that would only be relieved when the movie From Here To Eternity once more allowed him to capture the hearts of an adoring public.
The 1950s and 1960s saw Sinatra at the pinnacle of popular music. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, as awards and success flowed. But by 1971 it seemed that he’d had enough. His album Watertown, although loved by the critics, was not successful, and he soon went into retirement.
However, retirement did not last long; and by 1973 Sinatra had released another hit album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, which was accompanied by a TV show. Dates in Las Vegas followed, and then in 1974 he embarked on a huge tour across the world – ready to show everyone that he really was back.
However, although Sinatra had returned to the limelight after his short break, he wasn’t in the best shape. Smoking and drinking had taken their toll, and the crooner knew it. His biographer James Kaplan told Australian public broadcaster ABC in 2018 about Sinatra’s anxieties, saying, “He was insecure, about his looks, about his voice.”
Kaplan added, “And he didn’t like the way the world was.” For example, Sinatra had shown a reaction before to the rise of women. On one occasion, after a contretemps over politics with a woman, Sinatra had sent his bodyguard Tony “The Clam” Consiglio to go and shower her with a plateful of BBQ ribs.
The women’s movement had made huge strides in the 1960s, with the Equal Rights Amendment gaining impetus in the U.S. Indeed, it had recently passed both houses of Congress. And Australia had a long history of leading the fight for women’s rights; it actually became the second country to extend suffrage to women in 1902.
On top of that, Australia had long provided the world with leading feminist voices, including Helen Garner and Germaine Greer. Feminism had also taken a strong hold in journalism, too. As Margot Marshall, who had worked for the ABC, told the broadcaster in 2018, “I think all female journalists were feminists; you had to be.”
But Sinatra didn’t single out female journalists in Australia; he didn’t want to talk to any of them. The singer avoided interviews and press conferences, but the newspapers had column inches to fill, so they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sinatra could not go anywhere without being swamped with journalists. The man responsible for producing his Australian concerts, Robert Raymond, told ABC, “The media were determined to get to him.”
Of course, Ol’ Blue Eyes had a bit of a track record with the press. Back in 1948 he’d faced legal action after a conflict with New York Mirror’s Lee Mortimer had ended in an alleged punch. On that occasion, Sinatra had had to pay him to drop charges over the incident.
This time the Australian press, hungry for Sinatra material but being fed nothing, ran stories about his supposed links with the mafia. Alongside them, it showed pictures of the many women who had been in his life. If that wasn’t enough, captioning those photos with “Sinatra’s molls” doubtless fed his rage.
Sinatra’s ire spilled over when on stage in Melbourne on July 9. He took what he called an “interval” to let the audience at his concert know what he thought about the media. And he wasn’t complimentary, saying, “We have a name in the States for their counterparts: they’re called parasites.”
Sinatra’s rant continued, “I don’t care what you think about any press in the world, I say they’re bums, and they’ll always be bums, every one of them.” Working up a head of steam, he went on, “They’re pimps. They’re just crazy, you know.”
But the women got both barrels, as Sinatra compared them to prostitutes. He said, “The broads who work in the press are the hookers of the press. Need I explain that to you? I might offer them a buck and a half…” On and on he went, until he wrapped up bywishing a “pox on them.”
A furor then erupted when word got out about what Sinatra had said in Melbourne. Understandably, the Australian journalists broiled in outrage. Speaking to the ABC, Marshall recalled another journalist describing the singer as a “pig.” She said, “Our backs got up, and we thought, ‘We’re not going to put up with this.’”
But the journalists weren’t alone in their anger. Their union rapidly took note of the temperature, and, recognizing that Sinatra’s views didn’t sit well with the times, it swung into action. The morning after the Festival Hall concert, the journalists’ union called for the singer to apologize, which he proved unwilling to do.
Worse was to come for the crooner; the workers who set up the lights, stage and provided his musicians were also up in arms. In fact, they refused to work for him until he said sorry for his words. But the reaction that they received from Sinatra was not what they might have hoped for.
Not only did Sinatra refuse to apologize, he also had his own demands. According to ABC, the unions were told, “Unless within 15 minutes Mr. Sinatra had an apology for ‘15 years of s**t’ from the Australian press, he would be leaving the country within the hour.” However, it soon became clear that this might prove difficult.
That’s because Australian Council of Trade Unions head Bob Hawke had stirred the pot and involved more unions in the dispute. Transport workers were now refusing to put fuel into Sinatra’s jet – they wouldn’t even fuel any commercial jet that he tried to fly on. And hotel union staff would not look after his entourage.
Prominent in the labor movement, Hawke was well known to the public. And later in his career, he would rise to become leader of the Labor Party and Prime Minister of Australia. Hawke, a hugely popular figure famed for his love of beer, would become the most electorally successful leader of the party.
Effectively, the unions had declared war on Sinatra; and a state of siege seemed to exist as the conflict grew. And it didn’t even seem as though Sinatra would even be able to leave Melbourne. He couldn’t play his second date there given that the unions would not provide any service.
Now Sinatra came under even more pressure from the press, and there were scuffles between his bodyguards and the media. This seemed to just make things worse. However, Sinatra managed to escape to Sydney by plane; though no one knows for sure quite how he did it.
But if Sinatra hoped to continue onward out of Australia, he was out of luck. According to a blog in the U.S. National Archives, Hawke announced, “If you don’t apologize, your stay in this country could be indefinite. You won’t be allowed to leave Australia unless you can walk in water.” It seemed that Sinatra might have become a prisoner of the Australian unions.
On July 12 the U.S.’ diplomatic mission in Australia then got involved. According to the archive, Consul General Norman Hannah phoned the Labor Party’s leader John Ducker with a key message. He pointed out that there was a difference between “ordinary labor action and a threat to impede Mr. Sinatra’s freedom of movement, including holding him hostage in Australia.”
Hannah apparently even went as far as to invoke the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which underlines the right to leave a country. He then sent a cable back to D.C. about the affair and Ducker took notice. Subsequently, the two of them came to an agreement that an amicable resolution should now be negotiated.
Sinatra’s lawyer, Milton Rudin, got together with Hannah later that afternoon. He told the diplomat that the press had made a mountain out of a molehill – although the concert had been taped, so anyone could hear what Sinatra had actually said. Rudin also told Hannah of his concern about Sinatra not being able to leave Australia.
Luckily, a white knight was at hand. Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam suggested getting Hawke involved in negotiations. ABC reported that he told Sinatra’s entourage, “There’s only one man who can solve this for you.” So the union leader got the nod to come in and try to bring the dispute to an end.
Consequently, a discussion ensued between Ducker, Hawke and Rudin. And Hannah would tell Washington that more than a dozen union reps had gotten involved too. According to the U.S. National Archives, he said that they “consumed considerable quantities of Rudin’s cigars and Chivas Regal.” This went on for several hours, as the two sides strove to find a way to resolve the impasse.
As he took Hawke into the meeting, Raymond noted the lack of any papers. He told ABC, “I noticed that the dining table had on it a bottle of Courvoisier and a box of cigars. That was it!” Whether it was brandy or whisky, there seems no doubt that the negotiations were fueled by plenty of alcohol.
And the booze certainly seemed to oil the discussion. By the turn of midnight, Hawke had achieved success – even if he was by now a bit shaky on his feet. Raymond told ABC, “He was… almost legless.” But the negotiators had come up with something that everyone could live with, even if Sinatra could not be made to say sorry.
Apparently, Sinatra said a firm no to apologizing. He did though put his name to a statement that acknowledged that he, according to the archives, “did not intend any general reflection upon the moral character of working members of the Australian media.” In the end, both sides expressed regrets rather than apologies, and everyone was content to leave it at that.
The resolution meant that the final Sydney show could go ahead. The U.S. National Archive blog said that Sinatra did not repeat his behavior, telling the crowd, “What a bunch of coconuts we’ve had this week!” And to give a little to the people who had lost their chance to see the singer when his second Melbourne show was canned, this concert was shown on television.
All in all, everyone seemed to have won in the end. The unions had a boost from the public relations of standing up to Sinatra. In the meantime, the singer hadn’t really wanted to leave Australia because of the damage that would bring to both the tour and his pocket.
As for the U.S.’ man in Sydney, Hannah enjoyed what represented a solid win. He even had the chance to meet Rudin at the show and tell him how glad he had been that they could resolve the problem. And word went back to the State Department about Hannah’s good work.
Sinatra returned to the U.S., where he received a much more friendly reception, which may have helped him recover a little from the unfortunate contretemps. He seemed to take it all in good humor too. According to the archive, he would tell a New York crowd, “A funny thing happened in Australia. I made a mistake and got off the plane.”
And when Sinatra came to Madison Square Garden some time later, he could joke about his stay in Australia. ABC reported him as saying, “Ol’ Blue Eyes is back. Or as they say in Australia, ‘Ol’ Big Mouth is back!” And he wasn’t wrong; the problems in Australia don’t seem to have hurt as his comeback album was a huge smash, and his concert career returned to the stratosphere.
Later in life, Sinatra would even return to Australia; he played there three years in a row from 1988. And thankfully, each of those occasions passed without the high drama of 1974. Despite his love of drink and smokes, the legendary singer lived to 82 and is remembered as one of music’s finest – with his Australian jaunt adding to the color of a glorious career.